Monday, September 01, 2014

Intro to Western Philosophy - Thales

Thales (ca. 580 BCE)

1.   What is the problem of “the one and the many?”
2.   What is Thales’ solution to this problem?
3.   What is a contemporary example of the One and the Many? (quantum theory in physics)
4.   Which ancient Greek philosopher anticipated quantum theory?

What is the problem of the one and the many?
Pre-Socratic philosophers stressed the rational unity of things.
As Thales looked around he saw “change” everywhere.
Thales assumed that if there is change, then there is something behind change that does not itself change.
E.g. – you are changing… but there is a “you” behind all this change.
There must be a “you” that is the same “you” today as it was a second ago. Or 15 years ago.
E.g. – MCCC is different today… this moment, actually… then it was yesterday or a few moments ago.

Thales’ question assumes that if there are “many,” then somehow there must be a “one” behind the “many.”

Thales believes the concept of difference is logically dependent on the concept of sameness, which is more basic, and that difference must somehow be reducible to sameness.”


Thales’ question assumes that the human mind is capable of grasping this; viz., the unchanging one behind the many and, having understood it, the mind could understand the sense in which things hang together.

What is Thales’ solution to this problem?

The problem is: “What must be the hidden truth behind natural objects for them to exhibit the forms they do exhibit and to undergo the changes they undergo?”  (Palmer)

Thales: Everything, ultimately, is water.
Thales’ philosophical theory traces things to their ontological (not chronological) origin; that is, their origin in being.
This is about the relation of observable objects in the world to ultimate reality itself.

The Greeks were aware of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Thales concluded that one of these elements must be more basic than the other three.

The question was: Which element was able to take on the greatest number of forms?

“Water” seemed the most likely candidate. – Liquid, solid, gas.

“Thales was perhaps the first philosopher to ask questions about the structure and nature of the cosmos as a whole.
He maintained that the earth rests on water, like a log floating in a stream. But earth and its inhabitants did not just rest on water: in some sense, so Thales believed, they were all made of water… [W]as it because all animals and plants need water, or because the seeds of everything are moist?” (Kenny, IWP, 2)   

Everything is water. Obviously, this is false.

Yet Thales’ claim that everything is water is an attempt to explain natural phenomena in terms of other natural phenomena.

Thales was wrong. But his question was very cool; viz., “What is everything composed of?”

What is a contemporary example of the One and the Many? 

Quantum reality.

‘Quanta’. The word itself means ‘packets’ or ‘discrete’

From Brian Cox (physicist at U. of Manchester, England) -
          Quanta are the smallest building blocks of our universe.
          Everything (!!!) is, ultimately, foundationally, quanta.
Cox - the behavior of the smallest building blocks of the Universe underpins our understanding of everything else. This claim borders on the hubristic, because the world is filled with diverse and complex phenomena. Notwithstanding this complexity, we have discovered that everything is constructed out of a handful of tiny particles that move around according to the rules of quantum theory.

All phenomena really are underpinned by the quantum physics of tiny particles.

“… your brain, the most complex structure we know of in the Universe. We have discovered that all these things are nothing more than assemblies of atoms, and that the wide variety of atoms are constructed using only three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. We have also discovered that the protons and neutrons are themselves made up of smaller entities called quarks, and that is where things stop, as far as we can tell today. Underpinning all of this is quantum theory. The picture of the Universe we inhabit, as revealed by modern physics, is therefore one of underlying simplicity; elegant phenomena dance away out of sight and the diversity of the macroscopic world emerges. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of modern science; the reduction of the tremendous complexity in the world, human beings included, to a description of the behavior of just a handful of tiny subatomic particles and the four forces that act between them.

Which ancient Greek philosopher anticipated quantum theory?

Democritus anticipated this. 460-370 BC.

See Kenny, 18, para. 4 ff.
Note: The leap from “everything is water” to “everything is atoms” is smaller than it might seem to be.
Democritus made this leap (460-370 BCE) – Democritus developed the first atomic theory.

Democritus – “matter is not infinitely divisible.”
          “Atom” – the Greek word for “indivisible.”
Kenny – “According to atomism, if we take any chunk of any kind of stuff and divide it up as far as we can, we will have to come to a halt at some point at which we will reach tiny bodies which are indivisible.”

Democritus’ argument was philosophical, rather than scientific/experimental. See p. 18.
If matter was infinitely divisible, then suppose this has been carried out.
How large are the fragments resulting from this division?
If the fragments have any size/magnitude at all, we could further divide them.
Therefore, they must be fragments with no extension, like geometrical points.
But whatever can be divided into part can be put back together again. E.g., if we saw a log into many pieces we can put the pieces back together again.
But if our indivisible fragments have no magnitude/extension and are like geometrical points, we can not put geometrical points together and come up with a material object, even if we have an infinite number of geometrical points.
Therefore matter is not infinitely divisible, “and the smallest fragments must be bodies with sizes and shapes.”